Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.
What does it mean that success
is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.
What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self.
Then you can care for all things.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 13, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu is seeking to ground you in reality; which is getting you to live in the present moment. Today, you are going to learn why it is that success and failure are equally dangerous. Today, you are going to learn that hope and fear are both phantoms. Today, you are going to be challenged to always stand with both your feet on the ground, in order to maintain balance. Today, you are going to be encouraged to not see the self as self. And, instead to see the whole world as your self.
First, he says that success is as dangerous as failure. And, that hope is as hollow as fear. What does he mean by that? Thankfully, he tells us. He begins talking about the proverbial ladder of success. He says whether you go up or down that ladder, your position is shaky. What that ladder represents for Lao Tzu is an illusion; or, in his own words, it is a phantom. Once our two feet have left the ground, we are in the phantom zone. We hope for success. Every step of the way. And yet, we are dogged by the fear of failure.
Hope and fear are twin phantoms. Going up or down the ladder, we have stepped away from what is real. What is solid. The ground beneath our feet. You may be thinking that ladder is standing on something. Certainly it is standing on real ground. But that isn’t how Lao Tzu sees it. We aren’t talking about a literal ladder here. This ladder is a metaphor for pursuing our hopes and our dreams. That isn’t reality. What, is there something wrong with having hopes and dreams? This is a good question. Interestingly, Lao Tzu doesn’t tell us to abandon all hope. He just has a different way for us to go about hoping and dreaming.
Lao Tzu wants us to understand that the ladder is a dangerous place for us to be. He wants us to maintain our balance. And there is no better place from which we can do that, than with both of our feet standing firmly on the ground, in the realm of reality. The problem with the ladder is that once we have entered the phantom zone, we have plenty to fear.
But we need to understand better what is the origin of those twin phantoms of hope and fear. Where do they come from? Lao Tzu says we create these phantoms in our own minds. When we are thinking of the self. But, if thinking of the self is what causes those twin phantoms of hope and fear to arise, then that ladder is all a phantom of the mind, as well. And, what would happen if we didn’t see the self as self? In that case, Lao Tzu asks us, “What do we have to fear?”
This is transformative; if we will allow it to be. Instead of seeing the self as self, see the world as your self. There is no longer any ladder. The phantom zone is no more. Success? Failure? Hope? Fear? They have melted away, like ephemeral wisps of fog, once the sun has arisen.
We keep both our feet on the solid ground of what is eternally real. In this way, we can always keep our balance. We have faith in the way things actually are, instead of chasing after, or running from, phantoms. And, we love the world as we love our selves. Living in this present moment, rather than the vagaries of the past or future, we can finally care for all things.